Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Window on Eurasia: In Putin’s Russia, Anyone Criticizing the Kremlin Can Be Charged with Extremism, Experts Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 20 – The elastic and expansive way in which the Russian authorities use the term “extremist” and recent signals from President Vladimir Putin that that state must act “decisively” against “any type of extremist structures” mean that in today’s Russia, almost anyone critical of the Kremlin could be brought up on charges, experts say.

            In an article on the “Svobodnaya Pressa” portal today, Natalya Kalinina calls attention to this dangerous development, focusing first on the statements of Putin and other senior officials and then on the reaction of some of Russia’s leading rights activists and members of several political parties (

            Last week, she points out, Putin told senior officials at the FSB that “in the neutralization of any kind of extremist structures, it is necessary to act with the maximum degree of decisiveness and to block the attempts of radicals to use [new information technologies] for their propaganda (

            If the Russian president has in mind under the term extremists “those who are in the lits of the ministry of internal affairs,” Kalinina says, “then he in fact was giving a signal to the siloviki not to stand on ceremony” in their dealings with the opposition. At least, the journalist adds, “that is the view of many experts.”

            Former Russian Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev remarked a year ago that there are “about 200,000” extremists in Russia, ranging across the political spectrum, although he said at that time that there were a maximum of 20,000 who were prepared to act against the regime “with arms in their hands.”

            Those figures mean that most of the people the regime classifies as extremists are “opposition politicians,” Lev Ponomaryev, the head of the For Human Rights organization says.  But both he and others say that official understanding of the meaning of “extremist” may mean that almost any Russian critical of the regime could fall within the regime’s definition.

            Aleksandr Verkhovsky, the head of the SOVA organization that keeps track of official actions in this area says that in his view “the situation in this sphere is to a certain extent hopeless.” That is because the government “does not have clearly formulated tasks” for its “struggle with extremism.”

            “Everything is too cloudy,” he suggests, arguing that there need to be clear definitions. Unfortunately, at present, any definition of the term is lacking in Russian law. “There are eonly a list of signs [of extremism] and this is insufficient” to do what law must do: delimit “the permissible and the impermissible.”

            That means that no one can be sure what actions will have what consequences and that Russian officials can, as they often have done, change the rules from day to day with regard to this or that action, with some taking a far more expansive view of what actions are extremist than others do.

            Thus, to give but one or many examples of this, officials in the Komi Republic have accused election observers from Golos and rights activists from Memorial and other groups of extremism simply because their activities are financed by foreign grants and thus can be assumed by extension to be “directed toward the change of the political system of Russia.”

            While only the courts are supposed to be in a position to decide whether an individual or group is “extremist,” in fact, officials in various executive branch agencies do so on their own routinely, Kalinina says.  And their decisions have the kind of consequences that the courts either cannot or will not reverse.

            (There are some notable exceptions. Today, reported that an Arkhangelsk court has dropped another charge against Pomor activist Ivan Moseyev – he still faces one count -- because testimony in his behalf has so clearly obliterated the claims of the prosecution there (

            Sergey Mitrokhin, a leader of the Yabloko party, says that the inclusion in official discussions of the term “extremism” of language about efforts said to block “the legal activity” of state power at all levels can easily be used to charge “any manifestation of opposition” as a form of “extremism.” He said it could even be applied to his party.

            And finally, Vadim Solovyev, a KPRF Duma deputy, says that “the authorities are ready to label all those who criticize it extremists.”  They have done so against activists of his party and when the latter have complained, he adds, they have either been given no information or “directly told that this work is being conducted as part of the struggle with extremism.”

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